The dismal science—or is it art?—of extracting evidence of depraved political economies from works of art is nothing new. It’s an Inquisitional hobby that’s probably as old as art itself. It’s certainly true that some art is expressly political. It’s easy to identify because it’s almost universally bad. At present, it’s mostly the tighty-righty Kulturkamp battalions who engage in the neverending task of divining every other artwork’s position in the dim political constellation called America. Roy Edroso does yeoman’s work on the subject over at Alicublog. But Homo liberalus is by no means immune to allure. Here we have Atrios discovering damned, Naderite, above-the-fray, pox-on-both-their-houses, third-party, do-nothing, messianic defeatism in Children of Men:
I tend to react negatively to anything which floats above, or suggests that floating above, the muck is the only productive or honorable course. This is the view of David "pox on both their houses [especially the Democrats] " Broder, the "everybody but us are losers" attitude of the South Park guys, Nader's Gush and Bore, etc... And, ultimately, this is part of the message of Children of Men. The government is right wing and bad. The dissenters are left wing and bad, and so bad they team up with Islamic terrorists and see revolution as an end in itself. Salvation is to be found not within but outside the system. Only those who set up camp outside the existing order offer possible salvation.There are some gaping holes in the narrative of Children of Men, but honest readers and filmgoers know that every narrative is at its heart a construct of unlikely coincidences and foolish decisions. A great work of art integrates these seamlessly, and we believe them. Children of Men isn’t a great work of art, and it creaks. It’s by no means a bad work, though, and the creaks can be charming, particularly since much of the forward momentum of the plot is standard adventure/chase-movie fare. It’s a very artfully, compellingly filmed movie, so we judge it more harshly on its merits than we judge Indiana Jones, but the mechanics of the stories are much the same. Children of Men is worthwhile for its scenes of urban combat alone, which shame well-regarded precursors like Full Metal Jacket with pathos, terror, and palpable immediacy.
I've got nothing against those who see the corruption of the system as an insurmountable problem, it's those who apparently see human nature as an insurmountable problem but then imagine there are Super Humans who can somehow transcend this.
Within that framework the movie had a lot of interesting and perceptive bits, but too often the motives of the political actors were left unexplained. Why was the government obsessed with deporting foreigners? No clear rationale (reasonable or not) was offered. Why were the revolutionaries obsessed with revolution as an end in itself? Why were they united with the Islamic terrorist/revolutionaries?
The political message of "everyone sucks" but "somewhere saviors exist" is a very common one, and it tends to come from people who lack their own coherent ideological foundation.
Atrios’ real error, in any event, is confusing as plain a deus ex machina as you’ll find in contemporary storytelling with a statement of political principles. Children of Men isn’t about the failures of leftist or rightist ideology, nor is it a brief for salvation by a few ingenious outsiders. Children of Men is about one man, a minor functionary in a fallen, ugly, pitiless world, who has the rare privilege to find a little bit of redemption before he dies. He is an ugly, unhappy, apathetic, uninvolved man who sets out to make a bit of money. He is neither particularly brave nor terribly trustworthy himself. He isn’t likeable. But he has one friend, and he makes another. He acts bravely. He loves a little bit. He protects a person who is more vulnerable than he is. It’s as old a story as there is. A weak man discovers some inner goodness while protecting a woman and child. A woman shows herself to be braver and stronger in many ways than her ostensible protector. They redeem each other. In the end he dies for it, but he dies a better man, and the boat the floats in at the very end of the film to rescue the woman he was protecting might as well have been a choir of angels winging him to heaven or Persephone rising from a trapdoor in the stage floor to bundle him off to the Elysian fields.
Like the right-wing morons who read science fiction series as anti-Bush propaganda and other such, Atrios resolutely refuses to take the fiction on its own terms—to allow it its own context, to believe in the world it proposes, to accept its rules and conditions. Like every work of narrative fiction, the imagined world of Children of Men owes much to our own, and like any near-future speculative fiction, it uses present politics as a template for its own political reality. Atrios complains that Children of Men proposes that left and right, government and opposition, are equally bad, equally selfish, equally short-sighted, equally vicious, and equally self-interested. It’s all just backward projection. He assumes that the film makes that argument not about its universe, but about ours. You may or may not believe that such an argument is applicable to the real, contemporary world, but whatever your position on that matter is, it’s irrelevant to Children of Men, whose world exists in service of its narrative, which in turn is in service to the development of a small collection of characters.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio actually says, “A plague o’ both your houses.” He says it three times. Curiously enough, the Montagues and the Capulets deserve it.